Newfoundland Meditations

Photograph by Keegan Gibbs, “The Alchemist”

Photograph by Keegan Gibbs, The Alchemist

From on top of a hill where a small white house sits, I can see the beach below. The ocean, like life itself, creeps up the coast and falls back, merging with the deep blue. From an old wooden table covered with oil paint and propped against a window, I watch the lazy summer sun and the tall grass dancing. There are voices from the house next door, but the sound of the wind makes them inaudible. A few people, smudges of red and white, walk across the beach. On the road, cars pass each solemnly and slowly. The waves come and go, like watching my breath as I sit here on this chair and fill this notebook with words. There is nothing to do. It’s strange how difficult this is to accept sometimes. Usually my inclination is to fill these silences, these empty spaces with just about anything–desires to be something or somewhere else, or just chatter. Is this all I am? This usual existence that I call my life, where I am chained to a continual like and dislike of everything is so limiting. It has length, but no width. Is it possible to forsake this view of my life for something that is much larger and far more mysterious—to die to the known and enter the unknown?

Everything is pregnant with summer, the trees, grass, sky, and ocean—the breath, the head, the heart, and the line. Wooden posts stand at attention across the hills and valleys overlooking the white capped waves, the ribbons of blue, and the stones and sand. A dog barks, a lawn mower engine starts up, and then all is quiet again. There is a natural rhythm to life here that is deeply ingrained in the locals. It has soft ebb and a flow that I can only imagine comes from living near the sea. There is a humbling feeling of being a small part of something that is so vast that it doesn’t allow you to become overly concerned with yourself and your preoccupations. This wonderful feeling of wide is a gift that can swallow up any shred of self importance.

John, the middle-aged man who lives next door is sitting calmly and collectedly on the front steps of his house, facing the ocean. Deciding to take a break from raking the grass, he pets his dog Chip. He looks like he belongs there completely, like a silent pharaoh. Looking at him betrays my own restlessness. It’s a marvel how someone or something so unobtrusive, can teach you something about yourself.

I feel something is working on me here. There is a softening of tensions that appears if I am open enough to see it and taste it. It’s like the landscape is a special mirror, and I can see myself reflected in it. What is behind my restlessness, behind my tensions? Ah! There is something else here, whole and mysterious. A vertical dimension, one might say.

We are all moving through forces that we don’t understand like little boats being rocked to and fro on that big blue expanse of ocean that I see through my window that is buzzing of flies. And like those flies, I find myself caught so often inside a prison of a small house, when all I have to do is find the door to a much larger world that is waiting patiently outside. It all comes down to what I truly and sincerely respect. What do I serve? Either my limited energy is continually taken by my likes and dislikes, flowing into my thoughts and emotions, or it can serve the one who is able to see and stand in front of the mystery. This precious energy could serve a different master that my body truly wishes to obey.

what is

Caspar David Friedrich, <em>Moonrise by the Sea</em>, 1822

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise by the Sea, 1822

Writing on my balcony the other night under the moon and shadows, I felt anxious and wanted from the night something the night doesn’t usually bring. I sat there in the cricket filled evening for a while but nothing happened. I started to write about the spiritual practice of just being there with what is–and how I often find myself rocked like a boat between two sides of myself: on one side is a sincere wish for being, and on the other I am taken by the demands and worries each day brings. In the process of writing, I discovered that often in my life there seems to be no room for the other, and I often meet these demands with this most horrible of attitudes, like the world owes me something. Now, both stances are undeniable realities. This is how I am. I need to recognize and bridge this tremendous gulf that hangs in-between. This is the spiritual struggle.

With each day buried by yet another day, we all wander lost. Sure, many of us have tasted a transcendence of the ordinary way of perceiving things–that there is another life of promise and possibility, but we don’t just explode into it and become holy whiteness forever. We ascend and descend on ladders, and unfortunately when we descend, we usually forget. If we are passive, our days take us wherever they wish to like a raging river and the current is stronger than we imagine.  But there is something within us that remembers. It knows what is required. Through an active silent watchfulness we can open to this moment as it is. From that effort, a quality of seeing can appear that expands. It is inclusive, and it does not take sides, either for, or against.

Newfoundland Meditations 2

Rex Dupain, "Big Breaker," 1954

Rex Dupain, Big Breaker, 1954

It is a soft and grey Sunday afternoon. The cars creep slowly over the bridge in Biscay Bay, Newfoundland. A sea concerto rumbles and rolls into itself as the white ramshackle houses stare blankly at one another. A warm wind blows and the tall grass comes alive for a moment. What is here? Can I be open to receive these gifts of impressions around me instead of continually going out towards them? I need to recognize another quality that is always here. I can’t do it, I need to see how I am, this moment. Repeatedly my attention moves outward, like a yo-yo. If it goes too far, the string will break and I will lose the thread. Like a thirsty traveler, I need to keep coming back to the bar.

The forces of life are like waves on a beach, continually contracting and expanding. It is a collection as well as a dispersion, just like this mysterious property of one’s attention. I need a strong sense of an inner life. It’s like a new center of gravity is required, that is not just my head a thinking in me,  one that can stay in front of these forces and not be taken–to just see. I need to make a demand on myself to see how I am, here and now, in front of this person or this task. Without an intention (in-tension) I see that I am continually taken by outer or inner manifestations. Something needs to be called. I need to connect to a wish to listen to life–to be wholly engaged and not simply just passive. The dance of life never ceases with its music, voices and movement. If I am asleep to this mystery, I am lost in dreams and life seems as flat as pavement, where in reality everything is new all the time. What is needed? To simply let things be as they are. The sun doesn’t care who it shines on. Energy is impartial. You are moving with a certain atmosphere, blending within and without. Simply breathe and watch without interfering. Just Be.  In this way, I think it may be possible to absorb the whole world.



Kentarana Kamura, “Evening Wave,” 1927

Kentarana Kamura, Evening Wave, 1927

Something is always here that needs to be continually welcomed and respected. Each moment is an opportunity for a return to that which has no beginning and no end. Maybe for a moment or two, I am no longer simply a bag of skin and bones breathing in and out. Yes, something is here that is much larger than these thoughts and these emotions that are passing through me. I don’t need to store my belief in them. In this moment I can be free to accept what is, no longer thinking that “I can do.” It is done through me. For the moment, a cessation from wishing for people and things to be different. There’s a different attention, a different breath even, where a subtler body finds nourishment—it is filled with this attention. It is as though the body is actually a vessel for a small sun that can emanate with the sacred words, “I Am.” Everything unnecessary can fall away in order to simply Be.



Jaques Costeau“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”

— Jacques-Yves Cousteau, born June 11, 1910

I stumbled across this remarkable quote by Jacques-Yves Cousteau the deep sea diver who celebrated a birthday this week on June 11th over at the Tumblr, “The Anatomy of Melancholy” and I was stuck with its profundity. I don’t know about you, but through contemplative practices like meditation this inner life that comes into view feels just as vast as the ocean, perhaps even larger. I find that if I am not grounded with the sensation of my body rooted here to this earth, there can be a feeling of vertigo that Milan Kundera’s describes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He writes:

“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”

I think it is important to have a certain trust in the process of watchfulness allied with a childlike inquisitiveness. I try observing this person I call “myself” from a state of fascination that reminds me of when I was a child of six or seven and I collected fireflies in mason jars on cool summer evenings. These fireflies filled me with a state of wonder and curiosity, and they still do. Can I have that same attitude to this mysterious person I call myself?

Can I have the same attitude that the author Tom Robbins beautifully describes when he writes, “our lives are not as limited as we think they are; the world is a wonderfully weird place; consensual reality is significantly flawed; no institution can be trusted, but love does work; all things are possible; and we all could be happy and fulfilled if we only had the guts to be truly free and the wisdom to shrink our egos and quit taking ourselves so damn seriously.”


E. O. Hoppe, "Close-up of woman's graceful hands" 1925 from The Life Photo Archive)

E. O. Hoppe, Close-up of woman’s graceful hands, 1925 from The Life Photo Archive)

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”Rumi

I have been intrigued by the question of relaxation recently. The idea of it seems so simple, and yet it is so extraordinarily difficult. If I make a demand on myself to “just relax,” the body reacts by creating more tensions. I seem to have a similar characteristic to that of the onion, that is, I contain layers upon layers which appear in me as tensions. Can I observe them in this moment and accept that this is how I am, that this is the reality of the situation? All this “I”, “Me,” and “Mine” is quite a burden to carry around. How do I empty the vessel of all this unnecessary weight?




Two Worlds

Harriet Hoctor as human question mark, 1920’s

Harriet Hoctor as human question mark, 1920’s

Walking down Cecil Street on my way to work this morning, my mind is scattered like old newspapers in the November wind. I am watching an old black and white movie playing somewhere behind my eyes. I am not there to witness anything; the sparkling diamonds in the street, the naked trees reaching to the sky like a prayer, or to hear the soft voices of the whispering wind. Still asleep, I spill out over the familiar neighborhood, forgetting who and where I am. Then, at the corner at the top of the street, suddenly unannounced, like a surprise phone call from my mother, there is a subtle shift in my awareness. It’s feels like a door that has opened slightly, revealing a small strand of light. Magically, an inner space appears. From here, I watch thoughts roar past and, paying no attention to them, they dissolve into a white canvas.

“In the world but not of it,” I think to myself and suddenly everything disappears, like a drunken magician has pulled away the tablecloth and all the dishes have come crashing onto the floor.

I spend the majority of my life being continually swept along by the natural current of both outer and inner circumstances. I call this my life. If I am lucky enough, I remember to make an effort to go against this current. As the river of life rushes past, taking me along with it, I try to grab onto a branch to avoid being swept out to sea. For a moment I realize that I am not just this whirling world of mind. There is something else here and maybe, for a few seconds, I am not entirely lost.

All spiritual teachings speak of an inner quiet or silence. How can I simply observe whatever is taking place in and around me without manipulating anything. Can I find a place in myself from where I am able to observe from, like Christopher Isherwood said when he describes that he is, “a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

I look at the sky and ask, “Who am I?” If I am sincere with myself I realize that I haven’t got the foggiest notion. Sure, I have a lot of ideas about who am I am, but these are just a collection of old dusty photo albums and scratched vinyl that I have pillaged from garage sales over the years. It appears that I consist of a cyclone of thoughts and feelings, all vowing for supremacy over the other. If I am not presiding over this chaos by observing it, I am sold to the highest bidder, or the one who makes the most noise. In my case, it is usually the thoughts that are victorious. I am fooled into believing that is what I am. Continually I am taken by this process and repeatedly I fall asleep, drugged like an opium addict.

I search for an attention that can illuminate this mad house. A certain force that doesn’t waver, even when I am confronted with all the ugly and unbecoming parts of myself, or the predictable reactions from glimpsing something that doesn’t quite fit into the beautiful stories I have created. I need to embrace those to, like the second Bodhisattva Vow, “Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.”

I see that I take in the raw experience of life in and around me and then I create a commentary or a story out of it. The next things that happens is a reaction to that, where I say to myself, “I shouldn’t do this,” or “I shouldn’t feel this way.” This is my situation. I am all in pieces and it is this continual functioning that keeps me from experiencing each precious moment of my life. It’s like living in a fog that filters my real life through a mechanism that spins out stories and dreams. These fictions keep on rolling out and repeating themselves of who I am and who others people are. It’s a poor substitute for a real life that could penetrate,  right into the bones.

Would it be possible to have an inner quality, or a force that is strong enough to stay with whatever is taking place — quietly watching?

There is an idea in the Gurdjieff tradition and Zen as well, that there are two worlds or two pools. The first is the world of our functioning which includes the ordinary mind with all of its commentaries, opinions and ideas as well as the emotions that move through me like the weather. The second world is completely different. It utilizes different energies and is composed of an entirely different order. This second word is always beckoning to us, but it is hidden behind the veil of the first world. Siddartha describes this second world beautifully as “a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.”

So where am I now? Do I have a wish to be? How do I experience this wish? Practically speaking, it is neither this nor that. How can I gather all that I am into this very moment? Can I make space for another level to appear? A level that is not something I have, but rather something that I am in, like a state of grace.


Be Kind Towards Oneself

Charles Pratt, 1965 - Roxbury, Conn. (Leaves)

Charles Pratt, Leaves, 1965

I think it is the human situation to be prone to distraction or to be self-deprecating when things are not what we expect. It is how we are.

It’s an interesting study – our situation. I see that my mind wants things to be a certain way. My body, on the other hand, isn’t interested in what my mind wants, it desires other things like certain foods, sex or to just be lazy. So how can I expect it to listen to the demands of my mind?

I need to be in a relationship with my body. I need it to by my ally. For a long time my body resisted my efforts at meditation, often by producing tensions in the organism. Now it has realized that it gets something out of it, mainly relaxation, so it cooperates.

Our emotional life is similar. My mind says, “I shouldn’t feel this way about something, I should stop.” The emotions don’t know any thing about this. It’s like they are over in another corner speaking an entirely different language.

We have these three separate parts to our vehicle. The body, the mind, and the emotions, that are all working at different speeds and speaking different languages. Meditation is one method in which we can bring these parts together in order to function in a harmonious way.

I try to set a time each evening to sit quietly for five or ten minutes and try to be aware of this body. I don’t need to do anything except observe what is taking place.

I see that I give in to my resistances all too easily.

Before I approach my meditation, I can say to my body that, “if you allow me to do this, I will let you surf the internet for an hour as a reward.” This inner bargaining can be extremely useful.

And above all else, I try to remember to be kind with myself, especially the parts that remain interested in this effort.